Of all the weather systems that can cause destruction, probably none is more fearsome than tornadoes.
The very instantaneous nature of the tornado often leaves little or no time to take shelter, and the destructive power is enormous. Nearly any part of the world can experience tornadoes, and the United States holds the unfortunate distinction of being the place where most of them occur.
Although tornadoes can happen at any season, they are most likely to occur from May through August in the United States. Tornadoes generally strike in the late afternoon through early evening, when the ambient temperature is highest and most likely to support thunderstorm formation.
What Are Tornadoes?
Also called twisters or cyclones, tornadoes are formed during severe thunderstorms. In most cases, tornadoes form when a warm front clashes with a fast moving cold front. These conflicting weather systems spawn supercell thunderstorms that can rise as high as 40,000 feet.
At some point, if a tornado is to form, a difference in wind speeds within the supercell will cause a rotation within the cloud to begin. At this point, the rotating column is parallel to the ground, but if it begins to rotate more quickly, the end of the column will become narrower and begin to form the familiar funnel shape. The precipitation and winds associated with the thunderstorm will serve to drive the funnel to the ground and touch down as a result.
A tornado can stay on the ground for only a few seconds or for hours, and will basically destroy anything that is in its path. As it picks up dirt and debris, the funnel becomes dark in color. Some very large tornadoes can be up to a mile wide.
The worst tornado in the United States occurred in 1925, and it was called the Tri-State Tornado. This tornado stayed on the ground for 3½ hours, travelling over 200 miles and leaving nearly 700 people dead.
The Fujita Scale was devised in 1971 to describe the wind speed of tornadoes and the damage that they do. Upgraded to the Enhanced Fujita Scale in 2007, it categorizes tornadoes on a scale of EF0 to EF5, with EF0 being a gale that results in minimal damage and EF5 bringing complete destruction of physical property. A total of 28 “damage indicators” are taken into account in designating a tornado’s severity.
What to Do if You’re Caught in a Tornado
Because tornadoes can form so quickly and unpredictably, the weather service issues information whenever a tornado is possible. A tornado watch alerts people that conditions exist that could result in a tornado, while a “tornado warning” means that a funnel cloud has been spotted or that cloud rotation is present.
Knowing what to do should a tornado occur near you can literally mean the difference between life and death.
- Home – If you have a safe room, use that, otherwise go to the northeast corner of the basement. Should your home have no basement, an interior closet or bathroom is fairly safe. Those who live in a mobile home should leave, they are safer driving away from the tornado; local shelters will provide protection. The best protection, of course, is a tornado cellar.
- Driving – Drive away at a right angle to the tornado. There are now contending schools of thought about whether it’s best to stay in your car or get into a ditch should the tornado approach; your car may be tossed about with you in it, but you may also be battered by debris while in the ditch.
Those who find themselves in motels, stores or malls when a tornado strikes should seek the lowest level, keep clear of windows and try to position themselves in the triangle of life.
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